This has not been an easy book to write, as memories can, at times, be painful. I had a problem because of my strokes, I can remember some names, but not all.
Tom Brokaw has written a book, “The Greatest Generation”. It is a good book in which he declares that my generation was outstanding in the conduct of the 2nd World War. When I reads the book now, I am inclined to agree with him, but our everyday lives during the war did not make us feel outstanding. We did what we had to do in our small way, which was to win the war against the Germans and the Japanese.
I have written these Memories primarily for my grandchildren. I wanted to give them some idea of their family history. Many friends have asked me to write about my experiences during the war. Here they are.
One problem I should mention was getting the manuscript typed. Many of the computers in Garrett County have a virus which makes them inoperable. I would like to thank my cousin Colin, who typed it for me in Switzerland.
I was born in July 1922 in Coventry, England. Almost four years after the end of the Great War, 1914-1918. A dreadful war caused mainly by the pride of various royal families. The soldiers suffered terribly in the trench warfare and gas attacks. I grew up hearing stories of the war. Several young friends of mine had fathers who still suffered from shell shock.
My father was born in 1894. His mother, Priscilla Timmons was a young woman, his father, George, a middle aged man. The marriage was not successful. When my grandmother said she was pregnant with a second baby, my grandfather denied paternity. They were divorced and my father never saw his mother again.
My mother, Lizzie Phillips, was the oldest of three sisters. Her mother, Mary Ann Roddy, was a small woman of courage and determination.
I once asked my grandmother why she had named my mother Lizzie. I was told my mother had been named after a very good woman, but I have no idea who she was. Mother hated her name. When I was born, I was christened Margaret Betty.
Grandma’s parents came from Ireland, I suppose during a potato famine. Both her parents died when she was young and she was brought up in a catholic orphanage. Grandma hated priests and nuns, with a hatred that never lessened during her lifetime. My mother was a beautiful woman, from the few pictures I have of her. I only have one memory of her, when I was about two years old. I remember standing beside her at the garden gate, but I don’t see her face.
My parents were married on January 1, 1917. Father was a sergeant in the Royal Artillery and he saw heavy fighting during the Great War.
My father was wounded in France. He was riding alone in No Man's Land when his horse was shot and killed. The horse threw him, breaking his leg. Father was pinned under the dead horse for 24 hours before he was found. Then he was taken to a First Aid Station and a splint was put on his broken leg.
The horse drawn ambulance took 18 days to cross France. Then when he did reach the coast he had to wait three days for a ferry to take him to England. Father was put in Netley Hospital, just outside Southampton. Once in hospital it was another three days before he saw a doctor. Miraculously there was no gangrene, but his leg was two inches shorter than the other. This was only noticeable when he was very tired and limped.
Netley Hospital was condemned by Florence Nightingale when it was being built as totally inadequate for the medical treatment of wounded soldiers. The main corridor was a quarter of a mile long. When the Americans had the use of the hospital during the Second World War they used to drive their Jeeps down this corridor, they said it was too far to walk.
Mother was a bookkeeper and worked in London, I suppose to be near her husband when he came home on leave. Mother was in several Zeppelin air raids and there was a severe shortage of food. When the war ended, my parents went back to Coventry, their hometown. Coventry had a long medieval history. The city was famous for its ribbon making. Coventry was the city where Lady Godiva made her famous naked ride on horseback. The climate in Coventry was always raining and cold. It can't have been a very comfortable ride for Lady Godiva.
Lady Godiva rode naked on horseback because her husband, Lord Leofric kept raising the taxes on poor people. He said he would lower the taxes if and when she rode through the streets of Coventry naked.
Lady Godiva asked everyone in the City to stay indoors during her ride. Only Peeping Tom disregarded her request, and he was struck blind. There was a statue of Peeping Tom peeping out of an upstairs window on a building in downtown Coventry. During the Blitz he was dislodged from the space where he had lived for many years. When I saw him the morning after the raid, he was sitting on the remnants of a wall, with a tin helmet on his head.
My parents lived in a cottage called Ravenswood in the village of Kersley. The main industry was a big coal mine where my father was employed as an engineer. Kersley is now just another suburb of Coventry. Then it was an isolated village.
Mother became ill and my father was devastated when the doctor told him that she had tuberculosis and had only five months to live. When she died, my father and I moved to Coventry to live with his stepmother, Grandma Shapcott. I am and old lady now and mother died in 1925 when she was 30. There is not a day goes by without I think of her. Had she lived, there is no doubt my life would have been quite different to the one I lived.
When my mother became ill, my aunt, Lily came to care for us. She was a lovely person, with a great sense of humor and very kind. She died in 1952 and I found her death very hard to deal with.
My father’s stepmother was a very remarkable woman. She adored my father and was very kind to me. She must have been in her 60’s when she began to care for me. She had lived in an era when ladies always wore gloves and hats, only spoke when they were spoken to and never really expressed their thoughts or feelings on any occasion.
Grandma took me on picnics and we even went fishing. She had two frames of reference, God and Queen Victoria. She knew what was right and what was wrong. There were no shades of gray in her thinking. She was a strong supporter of the suffragette movement and I don’t think that I have missed voting in an election since I was old enough to vote.
Grandma had a brother named Joe. He had been a soldier in the British Army in India. He used to tell wonderful tales of army life in India, and skirmishes up on various frontiers. I think it was Joe who first interested me in wanting to travel.
I think I was lucky that father’s first stepmother was the kind person that she was. She loved me and I loved her. She read to me, talked to me and told me wonderful tales of when she was young.
My father missed my mother very much. A couple of years after she died, he went out to India to work for Braithwaites, the bridge builders as an engineer. He left me with grandma, knowing I was in good hands.
My stepmother, Winifred Ellen Trapp, went out to marry my father in Bombay in November 1927. My stepmother had a very nice mother and sister, Eva. I remember both with very much affection.
I started school at the age of five. I had a wonderful teacher, Miss Hadden. In the first year of school I learned to read, write and knit. I have knitted all of my life, and I still knit. Reading books has been one of the joys of my life. My eyes are not good now and I can only read a page or two of a book. I used to read 4 to 6 books a week.
I became very ill with measles, which turned to double pneumonia and I nearly died. When I recovered, the doctor suggested a sea voyage to “pick me up”, so it was arranged I would go to India to visit my father. In those days, of course, one traveled by sea. I was 7 years old and I traveled alone in the care of the stewardess, who I rarely saw. I had a wonderful time during the three weeks journey. Everyone spoiled me. I remember going through the Suez Canal, and seeing camels walking on the road that ran beside the canal, and going ashore at Port Said. I remember dozens of coolies loading coal onto the ship in Aden. I remember seeing the most beautiful red sunsets in the Red Sea, and I remember landing in Calcutta, such a marvelous foreign place, full of strange sights and smells.
My father had a Ford with a dickey seat. The servant he had bought with him to help with the luggage sat on the dickey seat with me. I marveled at all I saw. Beautiful ladies dressed in colorful Saris, half naked men serving sweet smelling foods. Not many cars, but many bicycles, and rickshaws The rickshaws were pulled by thin muscular men. I did not know it then, but learned later that the life expectancy of a rickshaw driver was 28 years.
We lived in a large, airy, comfortable apartment. We had a cook and several servants who all spoke their own version of the English language. The servants spoiled me and we all became good friends. The cook knew that I disliked rice pudding, which all English children ate in those days. Several times he reported there was no rice in the market that day and could therefore not make the pudding. Indian markets never, ever ran out of rice.
After about three months we were moved to Bombay. I remember so vividly that train ride of three days and nights across India. We lived in a large bungalow in a village called Mulland on the outskirts of Bombay. We used to go often to the nearby village, where the children had, I thought, a wonderful life. They wore no clothes and never went to school. I did not understand the dreadful poverty that plagued India.
There were a lot of English children in Mulland, all about my age. They were mostly boys. We played tennis and swam and generally had a great deal of fun. We had no schooling, and lived a wonderful carefree existence. We were all bright and active children. I heard later that most of the boys when grown up went to the army and were all killed during the Second World War.
We went back to Calcutta again by train. I loved it. Each carriage was equipped with bunks, showers etc., a self-contained unit. There were no corridors on the train. To reach the dining car, we had to leave the train and walk along the platform of a station. Of course, there was no air-conditioning. It had not been invented yet.
We did not go back to our apartment in Calcutta, but stayed in the Grand Hotel. It was an old Victorian hotel with a grand staircase. There was a troupe of midgets at the hotel, about a dozen of them, all my height. I suppose they were theatrical people. I wanted to talk with them but I was too shy to start a conversation.
When we arrived back in England it was cold and rainy. I missed the hot sun of India, the colorful clothes and brightly colored flowers. It seemed to me that the Indians were always in motion, either waving their arms in animated conversation, riding their bicycles or pulling rickshaws. I had enjoyed being in India and England seemed to be a gray, subdued country.
My father was on leave and he and my stepmother would return to India. I was to go to boarding school. I was 8 years old.
At first I hated the school. I was homesick, lonely and friendless. I eventually made friends of course. The girl who became my best friend was an American named Ethel Hampton. I eventually grew to like the school which, for those days, was fairly progressive. Geography was an important subject of course, I suspect because so many fathers of the girls were working in various parts of the British Empire. Geography was made very interesting because our teachers were very knowledgeable in that subject. We also read literature, and listen to music of the country we were studying.
The school was in a modern building overlooking the English Channel. We were taken swimming as early as April, when the seawater was still very cold. We played a tennis and rounders (baseball) in the summer and hockey in the winter.
The school had an interesting curriculum. As we were expected to marry when we grew up, not much was done to prepare us for careers. Chemistry and physics were not taught. We had a lot of poetry, literature, history and geography. Not very much math. We read a surprising number of American books. I think we read everything that Mark Twain wrote. We had an excellent library which was constantly used.
The owner of the school, Miss Bennett, was a graduate of the Royal School of Music and possessed a wonderful soprano voice. Every Sunday night after supper we had to attend a concert given by a musician. We hated those concerts and used to wriggle and giggle through them. But those concerts formed the basis of my listening pleasure. Today, I only listen to classical music, which I love.
I stayed at the school until my father returned from India, just before the outbreak of war. His return was not a happy time for me. My stepmother and I did not get on at all well. We clashed and I felt she resented my presence.
My father had bought a very nice house near Redditch, Worcestershire. I hated to leave my home and my little sister, who was then just a baby. I moved to Coventry to live with my aunt and uncle, who welcomed me with open arms. They gave me a good life and I was happy living with them.
I was 17 when war was declared against the Germans on September 3rd, 1939. It was a Sunday, I remember, and I cried. It seemed to me that all my life there had been wars, wars which brought us not glory, but only misery to people who had no control over whether their countries would go to war or not.
The Italians had invaded Ethiopia and used poison gas against spear carrying natives. There had been a terrible civil war in Spain, between the upper-class fascists and the people. Casualties on both sides were very high. Several girls from my school went to Spain as nurses after they graduated.
The blackout started the day the war was declared. We all had to have heavy drapes on the windows with no cracks allowing light to be seen outside. There were no street lights. In fact there were no lights anywhere! All street signs were taken down, as well as the names of the cities and towns at the railway stations. This was supposed to confuse the Germans when they came. The lack of signs certainly confused us!
Rationing started. Every conceivable thing was rationed. Food, fuel, gasoline and clothes. The strange thing is that, during the war, people were generally healthy because food, even in short supply, was well balanced and there was no junk food.
For the first few months of the war nothing much happened. In May 1940, everything changed. The Germans invaded the neutral countries Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium and Holland. All the invasions were successful. France's defeat by the Germans exposed our army to grave danger. Miraculously, the British were able to rescue almost 400,000 men, who suffered through almost constant air bombardment at Dunkirk.
I lived with my aunt Lily and uncle during the early months of the war. Aunt had a baby, a beautiful boy, who she named Colin. He is my only cousin and we have always been very close, more like brother and sister. My cousin Colin grew up and eventually worked for the IBM Research Division. He had a very successful career. He married and had two sons, now grown. Colin is retired and lives happily in Switzerland.
Air raid started very seriously during the summer. Hitler was planning to invade England and the only thing that stopped him was the Royal Air Force. The RAF flew day and night in planes which each day grew fewer and fewer. The air raid started against London at first and soon against other cities. Casualties were very high and the destruction of the cities had to be seen to be believed.
Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister and he provided brilliant leadership. He promised us only "blood and sweat and tears". His speeches were so strong and profound. We understood the serious plight we were in. He did not hesitate to give us the bad news, and there certainly was a lot of that in those days. Mr Churchill's use of the English language was exceptional. Who can ever forget his statement about the Royal Air Force that "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”.
RAF flyers after that speech were known as the few. I have many memories of the air raids during the fall of 1940. I remember running very fast to a shelter which had been built on a sidewalk, only to find when I reached the shelter, puffing and panting, that there was no roof.
I remember being herded into a shelter during the daylight raid by a policeman. A few days later I discovered I had head lice, caught no doubt from someone in the shelter. I thought the end of the world had come and I cried and cried.
I remember being in the movies of one night with my friend, Muriel. The manager came out on the stage and said he wished us all to go home as the air-raid was very heavy. Muriel had to go one way to her home. I went in another direction. The manager had been right. It was a very heavy air raid. It was a very black night, lightened only by the flashes of the anti-aircraft guns and the exploding bombs. The bombs were very close and several times I had to throw myself down to avoid the explosions. I heard footsteps behind me and a man's voice asked which direction I was going. We walked along together in silence, holding hands. I have no idea who he was. We had to throw ourselves down on the road several times. He walked with me to my aunt's house and I never saw him again. He had held my hand so tightly it was a long time before I could straighten my fingers.
I remember the day I had a perm. In those days the hair was curled onto an iron structure, which looked a bit like a floor lamp. It was in the middle of the afternoon when the siren went. The hairdresser did pull out the electric plug before she ran to the shelter. I sat there alone unable to move, because I was hooked up to the perm machine. To make my situation worse, the Germans were machine gunning the streets. Fortunately the raid was not a long one.
The movie "Gone with the Wind" came to Coventry, but I did not see it until after the war. In those days, movie houses were closed on Sunday. When the movie was to start on Monday, about seven movie houses were booked to show the film but could not open because of bombings on Sunday night. When the movie was finally shown, very few people went to see it.
Uncle sent my aunt and Colin to the country to be safe from air raids. My poor aunt had diarrhoea every time the air raid sirens went off.
The air raid on November 14, 1940 had caused much damage to life and property. After I had found my grandmother I went back to what was left of our house. Doors, windows were blown out. There was a big hole in the roof where a huge piece of a nearby Church have been blown in right through my bed to the floor beneath.
My father was looking for me. He had pinned a note to what was left of the door frame, telling me where did go to find him. I did find him and he took me home.
I hadn't been home for a long time and the house was very different. It was full of people who had lost their home. My stepmother's mother, her sister and husband and two children. My father's cousin, her husbands and two children. A couple of canaries and a few dogs. All living in a three bedroom house. I slept on an air mattress in the dining room. I went in the Navy the following August.
The war went on and on and the air raids intensified over the cities. My other aunt, Elsie, lived in Plymouth on the South coast of England. She endured nine successive nights of long air raids. She survived the raids but she and her husband, Charlie only had the clothes they wore, when the raids finished. They lost their house and all they possessed.
Auntie Elsie, younger than my mother but older than my Auntie Lily, had married Charlie at the end of the first world war. Charlie was a small dapper man, always very carefully dressed. It was hard to imagine him covered with mud fighting in a filthy trench somewhere in France during the First World War. Charlie had been badly gassed in one of the big battles but he lived well into his 80's. The interesting thing is that between 1910 and 1920, all of his family, with the exception of one cousin, died of tuberculosis. We thought that the poison gas had killed his tuberculosis.
Auntie Elsie had developed a bad case of claustrophobia during the long hours she had spent in the air raid shelters. When Charlie had his fatal heart attack she was unable to get in the ambulance with Charlie and he died all alone.
My father bought shares in a black market pig. The night came when the poor pig was to be killed. Because my father's sympathies were with the pig, he was sent outside to find the policeman doing his rounds, to engage him in conversation. They did not want the policeman to hear the pistol shot which killed the pig. This was the night Birmingham, 20 miles away, was going through the worst noisy air raid of the war.
I wanted very badly to go into the Navy. Because I was under age, my father would have to sign the application forms, which he did not want to do. He did not want me to go in the Navy or any of the other services. But I was determined to go, and threatened to forge his signature. I knew we would not win the war unless I was in the Navy. He eventually signed and I reported to London as a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service - the Wrens - in August 1941.
Our Wren training was in a college of London University. A beautiful old place, very comfortable. We learned to march, salute and to form ranks. We also learned naval terminology. Every aspect of our lives was naval. We wore uniforms of navy blue serge, white shirts with black ties, lace up black shoes, and crumpled hats with brims. But, we could wear black nylon stockings.
In October, I was sent up to the Glasgow Naval Office, then the headquarters of naval operations against the Germans in the battle of the Atlantic. The offices were in an old hotel, St. Enoch'. Our office was two floors below ground level, in a smelly old cabbage storeroom. There was no air conditioning of any kind. Some of us became sick because of the stale air. My Petty Officer was Marie Smith, a very good Petty Officer. Her supervision was always very fair. I was in communications and we were kept very busy, especially when battles were taking place in the Atlantic or ships were being sunk.
Our quarters, where we lived, was in a big house off the main shopping street in Glasgow. The food was not too bad, but our rooms were unheated and very cold. My cabin was in the basement of the house and was very damp.
The Wrens were very varied as to their education and families. I remember one girl who did not want the war to end because she had never lived in a house with the indoor sanitation or hot water. She took four baths a day. Another girl did not undress at night to go to bed. She was also first in the dining room for breakfast because she was already dressed. Both girls had lived in slums. Another girl I remember had come from a very protective family. She had never been to school, but had been taught by a governess. She had never been allowed to go outside the house by herself. Her knowledge of the facts of life was nil. The Navy nurse tried to explain where babies came from. She roared with laughter and said how stupid, the nurse was to expect her to believe they grew in their mother's stomach. She was discharged from the Navy for her own good.
As I have said, I lived in a cold, damp cabin in the basement, which I share with Phyllis Black. She and I became lifelong friends. She still lives in Glasgow. Another girl I remember was Peggy Last. She was then, I suppose in her thirties, and she was deeply unhappy. Her relationship with the man she loved had come to an end. I had never before known woman who had lived with a man and not been married to him. I was very shocked. Peggy went on to have an important career in the W.R.N.S. when she went overseas.
We were on night duty every fourth night. Depending on the situation in the Atlantic, we might or might not be off-duty in the morning. One situation was very bad and we worked for 36 hours, making catnaps when we could. When I finally went off duty I was too late for breakfast at our quarters, so I stopped off at a YMCA canteen. A woman came over to my table, put her hand on my arm and asked if I'd thought of the Saviour recently. I had not. I had been too busy. I was heartbroken at the number of sailors who had been drowned during the last few nights. I expressed myself strongly in no uncertain terms and the next thing I knew I was escorted to the door by a very large military policeman, without my breakfast.
Travel during the war was very difficult. Coping with luggage, finding the gate the train left in the blackout took time and patience. There were no porters. They were very few taxis. Always there was the problem of not knowing where you were because all the signs have been taken down. The trains were overcrowded.
I remember one miserable journey. I went from Glasgow to Birmingham on leave. There were no seats. The train was so crowded it was impossible even to sit on the floor. We had to stand. The train was fall of soldiers returning from a raid on islands off the Norwegian coast. The fighting had been fierce. The soldiers were exhausted. But they had to stand as well. It was impossible to move. I stood all night clutching a soldier's rifle
Because of the lack of fresh air in our office, I always walked in the blackout when I was going on night duty. There was at that time in Glasgow, the remnants of every army overrun by the Germans. Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Danish, Belgians and French. All the men were lonely and worried about their families left in their homelands. The Poles were rather strange. The men were mostly short in stature and I supposed peasants. Most were illiterate in Polish and English defeated them completely. They seemed not to know where they were. The respect they felt for women was in very short supply. The Polish officers were even stranger. Many wore make-up and corsets and seem to have very little interest or knowledge of the men in their command. The Norwegian and Dutch were very fine men. They were very respectful to women and were fierce fighters against the Germans.
In those days everything was closed on Sundays. The Sabbath was a serious business to the Scots, who approved of everything being closed. Eventually the military forced everything to open on Sunday. The boredom of the troops so far from their homes were serious and there were many fights between themselves and various nationalities.
For relaxation we mostly walked. Scotland is a beautiful country of high mountains and lakes called lochs. Phyllis and I walked on the hills, sometimes for 20 miles, stopping at a small tearoom for rest and refreshment. Now I walk very slowly for a short distance using a walking stick. Old age is often not much fun.
Living in naval quarters was very much like an extension of boarding school. We ate three times a day, we had to be in by a certain time of night, we had to be polite to our officers, calling them Sir or Maam. But over everything hung the war. The blackout, the rationing, the battles and the casualties. The nurses and doctors I supposed worked the hardest trying to save lives.
We all suffered over the men who were prisoners of war. Phyllis had a picture on her bureau of two incredibly handsome young men, her twin brothers. One was a prisoner of war, the other an active soldier. The one who was a prisoner survive the war, the other was killed.
I remember the lovely music we listened to. I remember the music even if I can't remember names of the musicians or the music. I can remember some names. Deep Purple was a great favourite of mine, as was “Begin the Beguine”. The singers had lovely voices and we could hear every word and every note. Not like the noise that passes for music today.
I read a great deal as we had access to good libraries. I read many of Tolstoy's books, and other Russians. Mostly I read travel and biographies. I had a good grounding of classical literature at school. I developed a liking for well-written mysteries and good fiction. I think the book that had the most profound influence on my life was the Testaments of Youth by Vera Britain. The book describes her life during the First World War. Not easy reading, but described most accurately the horrors of that war.
I have a clear memory of the night I was on duty and someone came into the office and said that the Japs had bombed the Yanks. We were not very excited about the news. We were used to bombings. Someone said something about the Yanks coming into the war now. Some people always referred to all Americans as Yanks, regardless of where they came from.
The Americans started to come over to the UK towards the end of 1942. They were quite different to British troops. They were much better paid than our troops and their food was much better. They always have fruit with their food, such as oranges and apples or bananas. We had not seen these since the beginning of the war, when imports of basic foods was kept to a minimum. Fruit was not considered a necessity.
The Americans gave a lot of parties to which we were invited. But we didn't like to go. The men danced in a funny way and didn't dance the steps like our men did. They didn't know how to foxtrot, do the quick step or waltz. But worst of all they served a revolting drink called Coke, which none of us liked. I still don't like it. What was worse was when the Coke was mixed with rum. The Americans kept coming and we discovered, perhaps very slowly, that most of them were very nice. Different from us, but nice, kind and very generous.
We had two movie stars assigned to the Glasgow Naval Officers, Robert Montgomery and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. One of the Wrens almost swooned when she found herself riding in the elevators alone with these two men.
The worst night of the war, as far as I was concerned was the night the admiral came into the office. Admiral Sir James Troup was reputed to be the only living naval officer who had quelled a mutiny at sea. All he had to do was stand on the bridge of the ship and glare at the mutineers.
I was alone and it was about to 2am. The admiral asked me what I would have done if he had been the enemy. As far as I was concerned, he was the enemy. He beckoned to me to follow him into the corridor outside. There was a thick bundle of cables about nine inches thick with an axe underneath. The admiral said if the enemy came I should have cut through the cables with the axe. I don't think the Germans would have stood idly by while I did that.
For a long time I had wanted to go overseas. I could hardly contain my excitement when I was told I was going in May 1943.
We were sent to London for instructions. We were not told where we were being sent to. I have no idea which station we left from in London. We left in the blackout and station was in semi-darkness, with of course, no signs as to where we were. There was an air raid in progress and the train was machine gunned. Not a happy memory, although I don't think anybody was hurt by the flying bullets.
We arrived in Greenock Scotland the next morning and I saw the ship that was to be our home for the next five weeks. An American ship, the SS Argentine. The ship's crew were Americans, but the food was British. We had Irish stew when we crossed the equator and all down the West African coast.
The ship looked full, but troops were still going on board three days later. There were about 5000 troops on board and 200 women. Our cabins were on the water line. Most of the girls went for the bunks near the porthole. I decided if we were going to be sunk, I wanted to be near the door and the stairs. Before we sailed, the porthole was clamped shut. What air there was came through the door. The cabin had originally been for two people. There were 28 of us in this cabin for two, in bunks four tiers high. There were no chairs on board. We either lay on our bunks or sat on the deck. We had two meals a day, at four minutes past seven in the morning and four minutes past four in the afternoon. We were in a convoy of four troop ships, escorted by four destroyers.
Wrens had been sent overseas for many months. The trip the month before ours had ended in disaster when the ship was sunk by a torpedo. Several Wrens were killed. Those who survived were on rafts for several days before they were rescued. Apart from the heat, hunger and thirst they were plagued with bites from flying fish.
We were issued with the trousers sailors wore, made of hot woollen serge. I wore mine day and night despite the heat. I did not want my feet and legs to be nibbled by flying fish.
One lovely sunny afternoon we wore all sitting on the deck when suddenly the four destroyers who were our escorts took off and formed a circle. Into that circle the ships poured depth charges. We were not very far from the destroyers and could clearly see all the activity. Then, as suddenly as it started, the ships stopped the depth charges. Every whistle the ships had started to blow and a great patch of oil came to the surface. How we all cheered and clapped and stomped our feet. Now I shudder to think all those drowning men on the submarine.
But if that submarine had not been sunk, one of our troop ships might have been destroyed. We were never told whether it was the Japanese or German submarine.
We were eventually told we were going to Durban, South Africa. We continued to have submarine warnings all the way to Durban. In fact the alarm went more frequently between Cape Town and Durban than it had all the rest of the voyage. The Boers in South Africa were very pro German and anti-British. Durban was a very lovely city. There was no blackout and no rationing, but it was not a happy place. There was much tension between the black Africans who were the majority and the white South Africans. We were in Durban for three weeks and during that time there were many shootings and knifings. We had to be in our quarters by 6:00pm every day.
It was wonderful to have fresh fruit again, but I was not sorry to leave Durban. We sailed on an old rickety ship. Not one of the ship's crew was sober for the whole voyage. They had all been torpedoed several times on that trip, including the midshipmen. We were going to Mombasa, Kenya.
Normally the trip would have taken about three days, sailing in the passage between Madagascar and the East African coast. But there where too many submarines lurking about to go that way, so we had to go through the Indian Ocean to Mombasa, the big port in Kenya. I had not been at all well during the voyage. I suspect I had picked up a bug in Durban. I was glad to get off that ship. Being with a drunken crew for three weeks was very boring.
The day before we landed in Mombasa, our W.R.N.S. officer, (who wasn't too bright) called us together to instruct us how to behave towards Africans. You must never, she told us say please or thank you to a native. Little did she know, I remembered as child in India we always spoke to the servants politely and with respect.
When we arrived and settled into our quarters in Tanga, the first thing this officer did was to give all the Africans who worked for us, Christian names. They were pagans. She used to call Tom, Dick and Harry until she was blue in the face. Nobody answered her. They did not know who she was talking to.
The British Navy was forced to leave its normal base of operations in Ceylon when there was a possibility that Japan would invade India. The fleet moved to Mombasa in Kenya. I remember being fascinated by all the sights. The African men were very much bigger than Indian men. The Africans were not as sophisticated as I remember the Indians. Their living conditions were much more primitive, although most Africans had homes to sleep in. Thousands of people did not have to sleep on the streets as did the Indians in India. If the African men were doing any manual work they had to find the right song to work to. Sometimes they would try half a dozen songs before they found the right one.
We did not spend much time in Mombasa, but were flown to our new quarters in Tanga, in what was then Tanganika. Tanganika was then a protectorate under the old League of Nations.
Europeans were not able to own land as they did in Keyna. The country was much more primitive. For instance, there were no roads leading to Tanga. A person could only get there by flying or by sea.
One big problem was that we frequently lost communications by telephone. The telephone poles were eaten by ants and fell down. Or the African woman cut the wires to make themselves necklaces and bracelets. Or the giraffes knocked the wires down with their long necks.
Tanga was a pretty little town, set on a deep bay of the Indian Ocean with an uninhabited island in the middle of the bay. Tanga had been developed when it was part of German East Africa. There was a large grassy slope which led to the ocean. The Germans would not allow the Africans to walk there. I remember the place was crowded most evenings. Africans strolled there when it was a little cooler. I liked the Africans and they liked us, with the exception of our W.R.N.S. officer, whom they did not understand. The villages were very clean and the women and children well cared for.
Tanga, just below the equator was hot. But we had a nice swimming pool and we swam most days when we were off duty. There was usually lion's spoor by the pool every morning.
I do not see any lions the year I was in Africa, but we heard them roaring in the bush. I did see huge herds of zebra and wildbeest. There were tons of mosquitoes and flying cockroaches. The mosquitoes like to bite me, particularly on my eyelids.
There were eight Wrens, 3 W.R.N.S. officers, and two nurses. 13 women and almost 2000 men stationed on an airport of the Fleet Air Arm. The Royal Navy pilots patrolled the coastline. Our favourite pilot was an American named Bill Sykes, from Baltimore. He was one of the nicest man I have ever known. His father worked for the Baltimore Sun newspaper in London and Bill was there when war broke out. Bill joined the Royal Navy and did not transfer to the American Navy when the Americans came into the war. Despite the heat we worked hard and for long periods. For relaxation we swam, had picnics on the beach, and went to parties. We had fun and I always felt I spent my youth, what little I had, in Tanga.
I fell in love with David Pope, the son of a vicar. We were inseparable and did everything together. We had been together for about 10 months when he told me he was going to marry the girl who lived next door when the war was over. I was deeply hurt and never spoke to him again, even though he tried to resume our relationship.
It was shortly after this that we were told we were moving. As normal we were not told where we were going. We had a terrific party on the last night in Tanga, and we were all hung over the next day. We sailed to Mombasa on small ships that looked like rafts. There was no shelter from the sun. It went not a pleasant journey.
When we arrived in Mombasa, we boarded an aircraft carrier. The ship had been built for Atlantic waters and a lack of circulating air in the Indian Ocean made for a very unpleasant journey. The ship was not carrying any pilots and we slept in their cabins. The crew, as usual, was a very kind to us, and despite the heat we did have fun, marked by the death of Rosemary Bond.
Rosemary came down with a bad dose of malaria. The medical officer moved her from our cabin to his cabin, which was much airier and cooler. Rosemary died and was buried at sea with full naval honours. Four days later we landed in Cochin on the southwest coast of India. We went to a party, but I did not drink anything as I did not feel too well. I collapsed when we returned to the ship and someone helped me down to the cabin I shared with several other girls. I became delirious. My fever was a hundred and six degrees and the doctor was afraid that I would go the same way as Rosemary.
When we arrived in Colombo, in what was then Ceylon and now Sri Lanka, getting off the ship was quite an ordeal. I was hauled up three sets of steps in a metal stretcher, which clanged against the metal sides of the ship. I went in a launch to shore and there lay on the floor of the Customs House for several hours. A hospital ship had just arrived from Burma, full of wounded soldiers. They, of course, had priority to be unloaded first. There were so many wounded men they filled the hospital in Colombo. When I finally reached the hospital they had run out of mattresses and I lay on the bare boards of my bed.
I was very ill but I had good nursing and I survived. I was in hospital for about six weeks before I was sent up into the hills for convalescent care. I was cared for by a wonderful Scottish couple. The husband was the manager of a tea plantation. The scenery was magnificent. Steep mountains, rushing streams and lovely, cool mountain air. In these lovely surroundings I quickly got better. I said a tearful goodbye to my kind Scottish friends and was quickly flown to India.
India was as hot, as I remember it from being there as a child, only hotter.
I was sent to a city called Coimbatore, at the foot of the Nilgiris mountains in southern India. It was situated in the middle of a plain, and the heat beat down on the red soil. The temperature easily reached 115 to 118 degrees. The Indians said it was too hot to work, but we had to work. There was a war on.
We had an alcoholic chaplain in East Africa who was eventually sent home in a strait jacket. Now there were more alcoholic chaplains. I used to wonder if they, like my father, could not reconcile the horrors of war with their religious beliefs. I don’t know if I am correct. I never discussed this with any chaplain.
Our food was awful. I remember we had to keep a hand up close to our face when we ate, to wave the flies away from going into our open mouths.
India was still a country of contrasts. The rich were very rich, and the majority of the Indians lived with terrible poverty. It is doubtful if they ever had a full tummy in their lifetimes. Overwhelming dreadful ugliness which defied description. A fascinating country, full of fascinating people.
Apart from the heat, Coimbatore was a beautiful place. There were suicides and I believe murders among the Navy personnel. I think every alcoholic in the fleet was sent there.
I had very frightening experience one day. Our quarters were a few miles outside the town and there was no transportation to take us there. I decided to walk alone to do some shopping. A big mistake. I was in uniform, of course, with sturdy lace-up shoes. I was walking along the road minding my own business, when an Indian fell dead at my feet. Immediately, I was surrounded by a large crowd demanding backsheesh. I spied a rickshaw at the end of the road and after stamping on a few bare feet with my sturdy shoes I was able to get out of the crowd. I ran as fast as they could followed by a few from the crowd which had surrounded me.
The rickshaw driver, sensing I was in some kind of trouble, came to meet me. After picking me up he ran like the wind to a safe part of town. I gave him a big tip and never walked into Coimbatore by myself again.
Coimbatore did not improve with time. One day I marched into the office of our Wrens officer, Joy Luck and I told her I was going to desert the Navy. She agreed with me and asked where we could go as she wanted to come with me. Her reply broke the tension and we both laughed. It was very hard to get a transfer out of Coimbatore, but she pulled strings and I received word that I was to go to Madras.
I was very excited the day the plane arrived to take me to Madras. In the Royal Navy, men are not allowed to have a moustache, but they can have a full set of whiskers. The pilot who came for me had a full set of bright red whiskers. His beard fell down to his chest. He was from New Zealand. We started off and after about and hour, landed. I thought we had arrived at Madras but we had not. We got out of the plane and the New Zealander fell in a heap at my feet, saying as he lost consciousness that he could not see the runway.
In no time at all, a dozen men ran up, brandishing guns which were all pointed at me. I was terrified. We had landed at an American airfield and the unfriendly men with guns were Americans. When they discovered how ill the New Zealander was, they could not have been nicer. My red bearded friend had the worst case of jaundice anybody had ever seen. Gently, and carefully he was carried away by stretcher to the sick bay. Then the Americans took care of me. I was introduced to that lovely combination of doughnuts and coffee.
After the somewhat hazardous journey, my arrival in Madras was something of an anti-climax. It was a peaceful place despite the heat and high humidity. Several friends from Tanga were in Madras, including Grace Sewell, a lifelong friend. Even some of the Australians who had been on the troop ship were there.
Madras was interesting old city, a fall of colonial homes with deep porches called verandas. When I was in school, our history classes did not take very much time over the loss of the American colonies, but we spent a lot of time learning of our conquest of India. Several of the senior officers in the British army who had been defeated in America became heroes in India.
We were quartered in a suburb of Madras called Tambram. I remember mostly our beds, which were very narrow, with dark brown mosquito nets, which, when they were down , looked like coffins. The rats used to run up and down the mosquito nets and we could feel their feet on our arms because the bed was so narrow. The village was always out of bounds because of bubonic plague.
We were not too far from Madras Christian College and the students were very anti-British and they frequently demonstrated outside our quarters. The only defence we had against the demonstrators was a lonesome misogynist naval rating. He carried a rifle with a bayonet, but being British had no bullets in the gun.
The British were very unpopular at this time in India and Ceylon. Both countries had been part of the British Empire for centuries, but understandably, they wanted their independence. Although the students from the Christian College, with their frequent demonstrations were a nuisance, none of us were even harmed.
But one girl in Ceylon had a terribly frightening experience. She
and her boyfriend were in the movies one afternoon when an announcement was flashed on the screen to the effect that all men of a certain warship were to return to the ship immediately. My friend's boyfriend was a petty officer on the ship. He did not want to leave her to walk alone back to her quarters but he had no alternative. Before he left, he gave her a swordstick he had bought that morning and told her not to be afraid to use it if she was attacked. She was attacked by several hostile young man and she did use the sword stick. She killed two of her attackers. She managed to get back to her quarters and was flown off Ceylon immediately.
We knew little of the fighting in Europe. Most of the men we met were on leave from Burma. They were members of the 14th army fighting the Japanese. The fighting was very fierce and casualties were very high.
We were surprised when we heard that Germany had been defeated. We had very few newspapers and were not aware of the Russians fighting in Berlin or the closeness of the British and Americans to Berlin.
The captain called the ship's company to fall in. He read the official declaration that war with Germany had ended. He read the 23rd Psalm, the Lords Prayer and we sang All Our Help In Ages Past. It was a very moving ceremony.
We had a victory march through the streets at Madras. It was unbearably hot. An unforgettable experience.
The war against the Japanese continued and the fighting in Burma intensified with very high casualties. I went on leave up to the mountains early in August 1945. We had planned a picnic the day the war against Japan ended.
There has been much controversy about the dropping in of atom bomb. I feel a bomb is a bomb is a bomb. Whether it kills one person or one million it is an instrument of evil. I do think the dropping of the atom bomb saved millions of lives, both Allied lives and the Japanese.
There is no doubt the Japanese would have vigorously defended their country if the allies had invaded. Most of my friends would have participated in the invasion. The Japanese had been fighting since 1911 when they defeated the Russians. They had seen very heavy fighting in China and against the Americans on the islands leading to Japan, and had suffered very high casualties. They would have suffered even more casualties if we had invaded.
I remember I sat on a large slab of rock overlooking a waterfall and remembered the war. I remembered air raids and the deaths of so many young men. I was so happy the war was over, but at the same time very sad over the casualties it had caused, especially the misery of the concentration camps where 6 million people had been murdered. I thought of the evils of war and I worked up a hatred for war and guns that has never left me. But was there an alternative to war when countries like Germany and Japan behaved so abominably? I don't think so.
I joined a ship in Colombo to take me home. The ship was full of British soldiers from the Middlesex Regiment who had been taken prisoners in Singapore by the Japanese. They had been treated dreadfully. Starvation, beatings, beheadings and other atrocities. There were also many civilian adults and children, who had been in camps in Hong Kong. None of them had a good word to say for the Japanese. The numbness of their rescue was over and they wanted to talk of their experiences. They talked and we listened. Many of the stories we heard could not be repeated.
There was one family on board, parents and one boy of fourteen. The parents had somehow been separated from their son in Shanghai, and were sent to an internment camp in Hong Kong. Their son, then seven years of age, had been left in Shanghai and had survived. He had become the leader of a gang of delinquent Chinese children. They had stolen from one group of Japanese and sold the stolen stuff to the other Japanese. They had watched British soldiers beaten and beheaded. The boy spoke better Chinese that English.
We arrived at Liverpool on a grey cold day and were sent down to Portsmouth on the south coast. We were there for three days and for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we were fed sausages. Wartime
sausages. They tasted as though they were made of sawdust and pepper. Although the war was over and the lights were on again, everything was still rationed, food, fuel, clothes and gasoline.
People who had held themselves together with great courage during the air raids and the deaths of loved ones, were now having breakdowns. I, of course, had not being in England during the celebration of peace.
Now, peace was a reality, and it was grim. Great Britain was broke. All our resources had been used for the war. Most of the cities had to be rebuilt, bombed homes had to be built, the broken education systems had to be replaced, the sick and wounded had to be healed. Money was in short supply to do all these things.
I went home on leave. My father met me at Birmingham station. All he asked me was where was my trunk. I had been overseas
for almost three years and had almost died from malaria and had been desperately ill with dysentery. I had survived sea trips where the seas were infested with submarines. And all that my father could say as a greeting was to ask where was my trunk. I was very hurt.
My father had developed into a workaholic and I rarely saw him during my leave.
My father had had a hard war. Overworked, he worked long hours. He had belonged to a group of engineers whose boast it was that they could rebuild the factories quicker that Hitler could destroy them. I would think he received some kind of medal at the end of the war.
I felt a stranger to my family. My little sister did not know me and I knew no one in the village where my father lived. Everybody seemed so busy with the problems of living. I felt left out. I was honourably discharged from the Navy in April 1946. I had been in the Navy since August 1941. I felt bereft and friendless. My Grandma, with whom I have lived when mother died, was dead. All my friends with scattered. I did not know what to do with my life.
Here in the United States, you had the GI bill for education. I think it eased the adjustment back to civilian life for many servicemen and women to take advantage of this bill. When they finished with college or university they were in a much better position to survive as a civilian. We had no such programme in Britain.
The only marketable skill I had was typing, which I hated. I found a dreadfully underpaid job in Birmingham and lived in a dreadful room. Grace invited me to go to London and live with her. I was very lucky to find the job I liked at the Queen's Tennis Club. I did not have to do much typing. Queen's Club holds a big tennis tournament in the week before Wimbledon and most of the players who played at Wimbledon played at Queens. Many Americans took part in the games and I liked all of them. They were kind and friendly and treated all the staff at Queen's very well.
My particular friend, Ron Endersby had joined to the RAF as an aircraft mechanic, and was shipped out to Singapore. We did not hear of his death until the end of the war. He had become ill and the Japanese would not feed those who had become too ill to work. Although I enjoyed working at Queen's Club I was very restless.
I went to work for the YMCA in the British zone in Germany. We ran service clubs for the soldiers. We provided the inevitable tea and buns. We were paid practically nothing. At first I was happy to be back in service life. But then I began to realise that wartime service life was very different to peacetime service life. I began to feel that the soldiers were overgrown Boy Scouts doing busy work. I was glad I was a civilian and did not have to salute and say Sir to every officer.
It at first I was stationed in Essen with the Gordon Highlanders, a Scottish regiment which had participated in wars for centuries. We did Highland dancing in the officer's mess there on four nights a week. Because I was a bit on the short side, I always wore very high heeled shoes and I danced in those. Now I wonder how on earth I did the dances and didn't break my neck.
The piper, who piped the bagpipes for the dancers was a huge man. He used to blow the bagpipes until he was purple in the face. The regiment had been stationed in Singapore and I was told the piper stood on the bridge and piped the regiments of 750 men as they left to do battle with the Japanese. He stood on the same bridge with tears running down his cheeks as he piped to back the survivors of the battle, 91 men.
I was sent up to the little village of Haseldorf, about an hour's drive north of Hamburg. There was an RAF station there. It was a very pretty village of thatched roofed, half-timbered houses. The fighting had ended in that northern part of Germany. The Germans were very friendly to us and I used to wonder if the people were grateful because fighting had ended in their neighbourhoods. I don't think any of the people had been willing Nazis.
My supervisor, Mrs Bennet, was a wonderful woman and I learned a lot about love and kindness from her. She was an Irish Protestant. The army ranks defeated her completely. She would address a corporal as a colonel, a general as a sergeant. Everyone loved her.
The Serviceman’s Centre we ran in Haseldorf was very nice. Mrs Bennett had a knack of always making her surroundings very comfortable. The men we served were all young conscripts. Too young to have taken part in the war. But most of them had memories of air raids and the deaths of loved ones. None were well educated as so many of the schools had been bombed, interrupting the education.
I remember three bright young men. They are well all cockneys from the East End of London. They had grown up together and it was amazing that they were still together in the service. They were all poorly educated and there was not an "H" in their vocabularies. One day, they all told tales of being "saved" at various mission centres. On a cold wintry night they may be "saved" three or four times. Every time they was "saved" they were given a cup of tea and a piece of cake, often this was their supper.
Another young fellow I remember was quieter than most of them. When he was first conscripted, he was detailed to drive a group of officers to London to go to symphony concerts. One night when he took them, he had a dreadful cold and it was a terrible night, cold, rainy and foggy. So rather than going to a pub, which he usually did, he went inside the concert hall. There, for the first time in his life he heard classical music. He fell in love with it, and would listen to nothing else. He studied music and became very knowledgeable about it.
The Korean War started and I transferred to the British Red Cross as a welfare officer working in military hospitals. I find that my memories of the Korean War are not as clear as those of the Second World War. I was first stationed in Ely at an RAF hospital that had become famous during the war for treating burn patients.
One aspect of the job I liked very much. We ran the hospital library and it was fun to introduce poorly educated soldiers to books. We would start with comics and went on to westerns and mysteries. The sailors who really took to reading we would introduce to travel and biography.
I had an unpleasant experience at Plymouth. I was the Senior Welfare Officer and supervised half a dozen other Welfare Officers. All were enthusiastic about our reading program and worked hard to persuade non-readers to read books. With the exception of one girl, who was a Plymouth Brethren. I have no idea what the sect stood for. This young woman was highly critical of the books we had in the library. When she loaded up the book wagon, she refused to put on comics, westerns, mysteries or biographies. The few books she did put on the book wagon were not exactly appealing to sailors. She proselytised the sailors in their beds, which was not allowed. I gave her several warnings, which she ignored. I consulted with the hospital authorities and senior Red Cross Officers, I was told to fire her. I had never fired anyone before. Our meeting was very unpleasant and she accused me of various unpleasant things. She accosted me two or three times, always accompanied by several, very large young men from the Plymouth Brethrens. They were not full of Christian love towards me.
Then I was moved to the Naval Hospital at Plymouth o the south coast. The hospital had been built during the Napoleonic Wars, and a twenty foot wall surrounding the hospital had been built by French prisoners. Each ward had three floors and there were no elevators. There was a coal fire in each ward. Despite these drawbacks, the hospital was efficiently run and the patients received excellent treatment.
I worked very closely with men and women from the American Red Cross. The Americans looked after our wounded in Korea and we looked after American soldiers who had to be hospitalised in Britain. They were easy people to work with and I liked them very much.
Then I was transferred to the Army Hospital for head injuries, just outside Oxford. The hospital had been built by the Americans during the war. It was a series of Nissan huts. None of the doors closed properly and we all nearly froze. To make matters worse, 1953 was a dreadful year for weather. It rained and rained cold, wet rain.
I did go to London to see the coronation. A wonderful spectacle. The queen was beautiful. Dear old Winston Churchill was hanging out of the window of his carriage. He looked so happy.
The Korean War was ended at last. A lot of the returning soldiers and prisoners came to our hospital for untreated head wounds. We were very busy. When the Korean War ended, I knew I had to make changes in my life in order to find some stability. I had finally outgrown service life.
I did not want to stay in England. I was fed up with rationing. I felt I needed more freedom than I could find at home. In November 1953, I sailed for Canada on the Empress of Australia. The war was for me was, finally, over.